I haven’t seen this in Canadian stores yet, but EMI Classics has reissued their three-disc set of Otto Klemperer conducting Haydn symphonies, at a low, low price. (This is in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death in 2009; more about that later.) This set contains the contents of four LPs Klemperer made at various times in his career; two of those LPs are among the best things this prolific conductor ever recorded, and at the price the set is well worth picking up for those four symphonies. These are the recordings he made in 1964-65, one LP of symphonies # 88 and 104 (Haydn’s last symphony) and another LP of symphonies # 100 and 102 (in my opinion, Haydn’s greatest symphony). The British critics hated these discs, calling the performances charmless and heavy. But the British critics’ ideal of Haydn performance and recording was the work of Sir Thomas Beecham, a famous British conductor and Haydn specialist whose performances (often from scores that were re-touched by people who thought they could improve on Haydn) made Haydn’s music sound light, cute, and harmless — the stereotypical view of Haydn as the guy who influenced Mozart and Beethoven but wasn’t really in their league. Klemperer’s performances were among the few of the era that really took the music seriously, and really grasped how much Beethoven borrowed from Haydn: the sudden pauses, the weird shifts in tone within a movement, the complex development of seemingly simple melodies. Most conductors of the time tended to let the strings dominate in this kind of movement, but Klemperer keeps the woodwinds well forward (favouring a strange, quirky woodwind sound that was very much his own; this orchestra never played like that for other conductors) and when Haydn writes a brass fanfare in the first movement of 104, you can hear it. The best performance in this set is of 102, which as I said is the best symphony in the set; the first movement is alternately charming and disturbing, the slow movement is gorgeous and moving, the minuet is a little slow but sounds gruff, brusque and tough, not cute at all. This is a performance to make you understand why weirdos like me think Haydn was a greater composer than Beethoven. Incidentally, while Klemperer has a reputation as a slow conductor, his tempos are not slow in these four symphonies; not as fast as they would be today, and like many conductors he doesn’t seem to think Haydn means it when he marks his minuets (which aren’t really minuets at all) “allegro,” but these are not slow at all.
The four symphonies that come off less well are the earlier coupling of 98 and 101 (from about 1960) and the later coupling of 92 and 95 (from 1970). The first disc is poorly recorded, with the brass, woodwinds and drums sounding so distant that they make no impact; it’s like the producer and engineer thought this was a Beecham performance. Klemperer does some interesting things, but you can’t really hear them. The other disc is from near the end of his life, when he really was very, very slow most of the time; these performances are just too slow for the music to make any sense, and the sound in # 92 is really bad (it sounds like mono, which a 1970 recording really shouldn’t). But for the other four performances, and some interesting things in the lesser four, this set is well worth getting.